Inevitably, London 2012 was dubbed "the first social media Olympics", which makes Rio 2016 the second Summer Social Olympics. How have athletes adapted to having direct access to a global audience? Northwestern University's Michelle R Martinelli reports that, while participants are hemmed in by the rules of the International Olympic Committee, those who engage find it can help their performance:
Because of the messages she sent and received from her fans in London, three-time beach volleyball Olympic gold medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings (Instagram/Twitter: @kerrileewalsh) said being on social media this time is a no-brainer.
“(In London) I really engaged in social media — not over the top but just what felt natural and I loved it,” Walsh Jennings said. “It was such a source of inspiration and perspective because when you’re in the Olympics, you’re in such a bubble and 99.99 percent of what I read on my feeds is really, really positive. So I use that as a big source to fill up my fuel tank, so I will certainly be on it (in Rio). It’s just the way the world is these days.”
Selfies across the DMZ
One of the most remarked-upon pieces of social media activity during the first days of the games was the selfie taken by North Korea's Hong Un-jong with a gymnast from the South. "Surely," thought many, "that's going to see her get punished when she returns home?" It'd be unlikely, responded Michael Madden of the US Korea Institute at the School for Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University:
North Korea has pursued "sports diplomacy" as a matter of national policy since the 1980s.
It is one - distinctly non-politicised - way for the politically isolated North to interact with the outside world and benefit from intercultural contact and exchanges.
Some cynical and sanctimonious observers label this "propaganda," when in fact, North Korea is pursuing one of the few avenues of public affairs diplomacy available to it. The North even negotiated with Seoul to send a joint Korean team to the 2000, 2004 and 2008 Summer Olympics, though it has never panned out.
For athletes from the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), it is an opportunity to represent the country in front of an international audience in spite of the intense pressure of expectations from home.
Claiming that Hong will face the firing squad or a life of hard labour for her selfie with Lee Eun-ju ignores the fact that she was also photographed in 2014 hugging American gymnast Simone Biles at an international competition.
You might think that by embracing an athlete of country described as a "sworn enemy", Hong Un Jong would have incurred censure and not be permitted to participate in the Rio games.
But that didn't happen.
Sexism on the air
So Hong may actually get an easier ride for her selfie than you might expect. Which is probably a good thing, as female athletes have enough to cope with, being misogyny-bombed from all angles. Zi-Ann Lum at Huffington Post collected some early examples:
In Rio de Janeiro, world-champion athletes and sport commentators — who also happen to be women — have faced offensive slights about everything from their choice of summer dress, to the gold-medal "catfights."
Credit for their accomplishments has also been thrown to the men in their lives, too. (Yes, for real.)
On Sunday, The Chicago Tribune identified U.S. medallist Corey Cogdell-Unrein’s as the “wife of” a not well-known NFL player.
“Corey Cogdell, wife of Bears lineman Mitch Unrein, wins bronze in Rio,” read the headline about the Olympic trap shooter.
On the same day, Kosovar judoka Majlinda Kelmendi made history by winning her country’s first-ever Olympic medal — and a gold one, no less.
But a BBC commentator called the final between two world-champion athletes a “catfight.”
Sexism in the pool
And that's the women who get to compete. The IOC won't even let female athletes try some events, lest it proves too much for their delicate bodies. Michelle Martinelli (again) laments that the IOC's apparent belief that women can't manage long distances in the pool is robbing us of the chance to see one of the world's greatest athletes in her element:
The most accurate way to describe Katie Ledecky is unstoppable. The American distance swimmer and Rio Olympics favorite doesn’t just beat her opponents by a couple hundredths of a second or an extra half stroke. Her winning margin in races is often measured in body lengths.
A 19-year-old phenom, Ledecky was dominant last summer at the 2015 FINA World Championships in Kazan, Russia. She won five gold medals and shattered three world records—twice breaking her 1,500-meter freestyle mark, which now stands at 15 minutes and 25.48 seconds.
Believe it or not, she won’t have an opportunity to again break that record in Rio. The women’s 1,500-meter freestyle—a race offered at numerous national and international competitions—is not part of the Olympic program.
Instead, the International Olympic Committee limits the maximum distance of women’s Olympic swimming events in the pool to the 800-meter race, even though male swimmers compete in the 1,500, also known as the mile.
First-time Olympian Leah Smith, 21, is just one of many swimmers and coaches to call the event’s continued exclusion at the Olympics outdated. Smith—who recently finished her third year at the University of Virginia and will compete alongside Ledecky in Rio in the 400- and 800-meter freestyle—said she would have raced in the 1,500 if it had been an option.
“Now that you can see Katie Ledecky going times that guys across the U.S. can’t go, it’s kind of ridiculous,” Smith said prior to qualifying for the Olympics. “One of our hardest practices would be 8,000 or 9,000 yards, and we’re swimming several miles in our practices. We even swim a straight mile in practice, (and) every single day I’m doing more than that. It’s disheartening because I didn’t ask to be good at distance swimming.”
The events in which women are allowed to compete are still overshadowed by one huge rule. Janice Forsyth, Assistant Professor at the International Centre for Olympic Studies of Canada's Western University, takles aim at "sex-testing":
The IOC's most recent policy, quietly adopted in January of this year, focuses on the level of testosterone in females. The IOC has decided that one single determining factor, testosterone, is the latest and greatest marker for determining sex, even though research has shown there is no single element than can be used to pigeonhole the world into two neat biological categories: male/female. This binary is an easy fiction that obscures the more complicated details of real life.
Yet, the IOC insists on its fiction of the neat binary. The policy states that only females who register below a defined testosterone threshold are female; register above that level and you will be placed in the men's category. Or, you have two options: use medical intervention to conform to the IOC's definition of female or quit. It's no wonder that at least one female athlete has decided to challenge sex-testing in a human rights court.
Even Olympic officials have implied their policy is scientifically dubious. When the latest version was released in January, former IOC medical commission chairmanArne Ljungqvist, who has no medical credentials but who was among its leading contributors, made a startling admission, saying the most recent changes were driven by a greater awareness of sex-testing being a "social issue" and "human rights" problem. No kidding.
The IOC has spent much of the run-up to the games struggling to decide how to cope with the Russian doping revelations. "Should the Russians be allowed to take part" seems a simple question, but The University Of Oxford's Julian Savulescu explains why it's more nuanced than that:
There’s a genuine dilemma here and the situation is not nearly as clear everyone appears to think – and as the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) pretends.
In law, there are two standards of proof to determine guilt before punishment is inflicted.
In criminal law, this standard is of guilt beyond reasonable doubt. This is a very high standard with evidence specific to the act by the individual in question. It requires identifying biological information (such as DNA or blood evidence), for instance, reliable eyewitness testimony, or evidence of motive and opportunity, among other things.
The reason for this is that the punishment for criminal acts is typically severe: deprivation of basic liberties, such as freedom of movement and association. Imprisonment deprives a person of a number of basic liberties.
There’s no way the kind of collective punishment that’s being dished out to Russian track and field athletes would meet this standard.
The second standard of proof is used in civil action where punishment is often a lot less severe, involving fines or monetary compensation for negligence. This standard is the “balance of probabilities”; on the evidence available, it is more likely than not that the person performed the wrongful act in question.
Such a standard would admit the possibility of collective responsibility and punishment.
Those who demand the exclusion of the Russian track and field team are assuming a balance of probabilities standard that says, because there was a widespread state-sponsored doping program, it’s likely that individuals were doping.
The five ring's three-ring circus
The confused response of the IOC - even allowing for the difficulty of the question - has added strength to those who suggest the Committee might not be doing a brilliant job. Simon Chadwick, Professor of Sports Enterprise at the University of Salford, considers what it might take to re-burnish their image:
Recent reports suggest that trust among sports fans in general has also started to deteriorate, which is also bad for business. Declining fan interest in the Olympics could lead to a fall in ticket sales, and therefore in revenues. In the same way, if consumers become less interested in the games, television and advertising revenue is likely to suffer, as people switch off from the event.
All of this shows that there is a business case for getting on top of doping. At a time when potential host cities are already questioning the economic and commercial value of bidding to stage the Olympics, the last thing the IOC needs is for trust problems with its cash cow brand to inflict serious financial damage upon it.
Effective testing is one thing, and a clean Rio 2016 is another – but implementing a strategy to restore brand trust still more important. Even if the IOC takes effective remedial action, the Olympics faces a long, hard battle to deliver what its brand proposition has always promised us. Failure to do so could consign the Olympic Games – and its highly coveted brand – to history.
Nations come together in peace to defeat other nations
If the bureaucrats are left wanting, at least nations whose teams perform well have something to enjoy. The Washington University in St Louis considers nationalism and the games:
Even if some of the highest profile American and international athletes will not be in Rio in August, it would be wildly inaccurate to say that the Olympics are irrelevant. According to Noah Cohan, a lecturer in American Culture Studies, the growing field of Sports Studies considers the Olympics to be an essential part of the argument that athletic events are politically significant.
“The Olympics, more than any other sporting event, lay bare the political manifestations of athletics, and how important sports can be for economics,” Cohan says. “You march with your flag and stand before your national anthem. World leaders are in attendance, and countries, which maybe can’t afford them, invest billions of dollars in building stadiums and marketing their country.” Cohan says that the national pride this creates unites a country’s Olympic athletes under an “umbrella of nationalism.”
This “umbrella of nationalism” is a central consideration when discussing the Olympic games from an academic point of view.
“How we choose to support athletes, whether they’re under the banner of our nation or not, is something that needs to be considered when discussing Olympic fandom,” says Cohan.
Nationality is slippery
That question of the banner under which individuals compete interests Niko Besnier and Susan Brownell. Writing at Sapiens.org, they ponder what the flag being marched behind actually means in a modern sporting context:
In the last few years, well-heeled Persian Gulf states have attracted athletes from other countries by offering them money, training facilities, and the possibility of qualifying for the Olympics more easily than in their home countries. The diminutive but oil-rich emirate of Qatar, for example, has until now played a very modest role in world sports. But in recent years the country has made huge investments in sports and adopted a liberal citizenship policy for athletes. The Qatari national handball team, which reached the finals at the men’s 2015 Handball World Championship, had only four players originating from Qatar on their 17-person squad—the rest had been recruited from overseas. By our calculation, more than half of the 38 athletes who will represent Qatar in Rio were born elsewhere.
Bahrain earned its first Olympic medal in 2008 when Moroccan-born Rashid Ramzi won the gold in the men’s 1,500-meter race (an award that was later rescinded due to a positive doping test). In 2012, Maryam Yusuf Jamal, previously from Ethiopia, won a bronze medal for Bahrain in the women’s 1,500. Bahrain is sending its largest-ever contingent (30 athletes) to Rio, including track and field athletes born in Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, Jamaica, and Morocco, as well as a weightlifter who is originally from Russia. Only four of the country’s athletes were born in Bahrain.
It is not just countries with limited local talent that are spending their way to winning teams. The United States, with its deep sporting traditions and its giant talent pool, has fast-tracked citizenship for some athletes who will be in Rio. Elite athletes who are in the U.S. Army can qualify for the World Class Athlete Program. Because the program involves enlisting in the U.S. Army, athletes who were born in other countries do not have to comply with the normal five-year residency rule that is strictly upheld for all other immigrants seeking citizenship (an exemption was implemented for soldiers after 9/11). The U.S. track and field squad going to Rioincludes four Kenyan-born athletes who benefited from this program.
The joy of hosting
Still, there's no question that, for Brazilians, they're part of the host nation. Much good it might do them, based on London's experiences. At least according to research by the London School of Economics:
Researchers led by Paul Dolan, Professor of Behavioural Science at LSE, compared levels of happiness in London, Paris and Berlin, interviewing 26,000 residents over three years from 2011 to 2013. They found that Londoners were significantly happier during the Games compared to Parisians and Berliners, but that levels of happiness returned to normal the following year. The opening and closing ceremonies, the two most watched and most expensive events in terms of ticket prices, had the most marked effects on levels of happiness.
The report, The Host with the Most? The Effects of the Olympic Games on Happiness,charts how, until the 1960s, the Olympics were relatively modest affairs with limited finance and investment. The television era of watching sport, combined with the capacity to reach a global audience enhanced the prestige of the event and encouraged fierce competition amongst cities to host the Games, resulting in a significant rise in expenditure on staging them. The 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne cost approximately $63 million in 2016 prices. In contrast, the 2012 summer Olympics in London required government subsides of $15 billion alone to cover the direct costs.
It concludes: “Overall, many cities spend substantial resources attracting and then hosting the Olympic Games, but the evidence to date suggests that the Olympics do not have a significant economic benefit to the host city. This paper presents the first causal evidence of a positive wellbeing effect of the Olympic Games on local residents during the hosting of the Games. The effects do not last very long, however, and the Games show no effect on subjective wellbeing a year later. The host with the most. But not for long.”
Covering the games
For those seeking to cover the Olympics, the sheer amount of stuff happening can be overwhelming. London South Bank University's Laura-Jane Filotrani has some advice for journalists trying to make sense of a nineteen day, 306 event, 11,000 participant story for their audience:
One of the roles of a journalist is to act as a curator for your audience - finding the best stories and being the source that your audience goes to first.
My advice to journalists is to always think laterally around a topic. For example, I’d advise that they don't just follow the winners, but think about the competitors who haven’t won too. There are often more interesting stories to tell from those who are on the periphery. I’m always interested in the backstory and the support around the athletes.
Also, there are incredibly important considerations around finance and sporting events. Where is the funding for the Games coming from? What are the implications? What are the benefits or losses post-Games, for the host city and its residents?
The green pool mystery
One of the big stories in the last 24 hours has been 'why did the diving pool suddenly turn green?'
Ermmm...what happened?! pic.twitter.com/pdta7EpP2k
— Tom Daley (@TomDaley1994) August 9, 2016
There's not been an official answer yet, but ScienceAlert reports on some circulating theories:
While Olympics officials in Rio have assured the public that the dark green water doesn't pose a risk to the athletes who have to swim in it, they've not been able to explain what's behind the sudden colour change.
"To ensure a high quality field of play is mandatory to Rio 2016 committee," organisers said in a statement. "Water tests at Maria Lenk Aquatics Centre diving pool were conducted and it was found to be no risk to athletes' health. We are investigating what are the causes of the situation but are pleased to say the competition was successfully completed."
We're yet to hear an official explanation, but experts are saying there are a couple of possible causes, likely stemming from a faulty filter, or otherwise problematic water quality, as the executive director of swimming's world governing body FINA told Reuters.
"No danger for divers, just not a good image for Olympic Broadcasting Services,"he said, adding that it wasn't clear how quickly the pool's water could be returned to its usual appearance.
The upside to the green pool
You might think that knowing you're about to plunge into a pool of god-knows-what might be offputting. But, it turns out, there's an upside. Or so says Business Insider:
And while, aesthetically, the green, slimey water may not have looked appealing to jump head-first into, Canada's Meaghan Benfeito, who took home bronze, said it actually helped.
"It's not the same color as the sky so that was really on our side today," Benfeito said afterward.
China's Liu Huixia, who won the gold medal, shared a similar sentiment, saying, "When we were practicing to get used to this venue (the water) was always sky blue... But we're always mentally prepared for unexpected situations."